Italian verbs potere, sapere and riuscire a



How to use the Italian verbs ‘potere’, ‘sapere’ and ‘riuscire a’

In my last article on the Italian grammar, we discussed the difference between the verbs sapere and conoscere. This time we will focus on other verbs that just like sapere and conoscere can be translated in English with the same verb, but that in Italian are actually used with different meanings according to specific situations and contexts.

The verbs I am referring to are potere, sapere and riuscire a.


Potere as a noun means power, both literally and figuratively. Potere as a verb corresponds to the English to be able to, as well as can and may. This is an irregular verb and it is used to express someone’s ability, freedom or capacity to do something.

Moreover, potere is one of the verbi modali o servili (modal or helping verb), along with volere (to want or have the will to), sapere (to know how to) and dovere (to have to/must). When followed by another verb, volere, sapere and dovere define and describe the ‘mode’ of the action.

With the literal meaning of to be able to/can, potere is used:

– to state that we are able or not to do something;

– in questions when asking for permission to do something;

– in its negative form to describe impediment or prohibition.

italian verbs sapere



Stasera posso uscire, domani sto a casa a studiare. / Tonight I can go out, tomorrow I’ll stay home to study.

Non sono potuto andare a scuola perchè avevo la febbre. / I couldn’t (wasn’t able to) go to school because I had fever.

Posso usare il tuo computer? / Can I use your computer?

Non potete mangiare la torta prima di cena. / You can’t eat the cake before dinner.

Potere vs Sapere / Potere vs Riuscire a

While in English the verb seems to be pretty vague and can be either used to talk about someone’s skills or general ability/inability in doing something, in Italian things get a little more complicated. Let’s see together all the possible translations of to be able to/can according to the context and the meanings that we intend to express.

Potere is used when the possibility or impossibility of doing something depends on other people’s will or permission, as well as on external circumstances.


Oggi pomeriggio non posso andare al parco perche pioverà. / This afternoon I cannot go to the park because it’s going to rain.

Gaetano non può andare alla festa di Giulia perché deve studiare. / Gaetano cannot go to Giulia’s party because he has to study.

Stasera non posso prendere la macchina perché mia madre non vuole. / Tonight I cannot take the car because my mum doesn’t want me to.

You cannot use potere when the possibility or impossibility of doing something depends on someone’s skills or abilities – in that case you will have to recur to the verb sapere. 


When followed by a verb, sapere takes the meaning of knowing how to, describing an ability that has been acquired.

italian verbs sapere


Io so sciare, e tu? / I can/am able to (know how to) ski, and you?

Marco sa parlare l’arabo / Marco can/is able to (knows how to) speak Arabic.

Sapere can also be replaced by essere capace di, which has a very similar meaning.


Sai / Sei capace a guidare? / Are you able/can (know how to) drive?

Il bambino sa / è capace a contare fino a 100. / The child can (knows how to) count until 100.

Riuscire a

While with sapere and essere capace di we talk about a learned skill or ability, the verb riuscire a is used when the ability to do or not to do something depends on a more personal capability, due to a physical or mental condition.

italian verbs sapere


Non riesco a studiare con questo mal di testa! / I can’t/am not able to study with this headache!

Non riesco a correre con questo dolore al piede. / I can’t/am not able to run with this pain in my foot.

Sapere vs potere:

Giulio sa giocare a calcio, ma oggi non può far parte della squadra perché ha un esame. / Giulio can play soccer, but today he cannot be part of the team because he has an exam.


Sapere vs riuscire:

Sarah sa suonare il pianoforte, ma oggi non riesce perché le fa male una mano. / Sarah can play the piano, but today she can’t because her hand hurts.

Extra tip

Bear in mind that while the difference between potere and riuscire can sometimes be very subtle, the line of meaning that divides and differentiates potere from sapere is actually pretty wide and requires some extra attention.

Take your guess!

What do you think about the following sentences? Are they all correct?

  1. Non posso parlare bene lo spagnolo.
  2. Non riesco a parlare bene lo spagnolo.
  3. Non so parlare bene lo spagnolo.

The sentence number 1 is definitely wrong because you do not need anyone’s permission to speak Spanish well. Also, there shouldn’t be any possible external circumstances you can’t do anything about, that could prevent you from speaking a good Spanish.

The sentence number 2, which is characterised by the use of riuscire, could work whether your mental or physical state is preventing you from speaking well, i.e. you are too tired or have a headache, so you are not able to concentrate.

The sentence number 3 is perfect, because what is under discussion is your skills: you are still learning, so sometimes you can’t speak very well but you’ll get better.

Some more about potere 

As I already mentioned, potere is an irregular verb. It is also a transitive verb, which means that it must be followed by a direct object and when it is used in function of modal verb, the object has always to be verb.


Posso andare al bagno? / Can I go to the bathroom?

Noi non possiamo venire. / We can’t come.

The past participle of potere

The past participle of the verb potere is potuto (s.m). To make its compound tenses when used as modal verb, potere can be preceded either by the auxiliary avere (to have) or essere (to be).

When the chosen auxiliary is the verb essere, the past participle needs to change according to the number and gender of the subject: potuto/a – potuti/e.

Affirmative | Subject + avere + past participle of potere

Io ho potuto

Tu hai potuto

Egli ha potuto

Noi abbiamo potuto

Voi avete potuto

Essi hanno potuto


Affirmative | Subject + essere + past participle of potere

Masculine singular          Feminine singular

Io sono potuto                 Io sono potuta

Tu sei potuto                   Tu sei potuta

Egli è potuto                    Ella è potuta


Masculine plural              Feminine plural

Noi siamo potuti              Noi siamo potute

Voi siete potuti                Voi siete potute

Essi sono potuti              Esse sono potute


Negative | Subject + non + avere + past participle of potere

Io non ho potuto

Tu non hai potuto

Egli non ha potuto

Noi non abbiamo potuto

Voi non avete potuto

Essi non hanno potuto


Negative | Subject + non + avere + past participle of potere

Masculine singular          Feminine singular

Io non sono potuto          Io non sono potuta

Tu non sei potuto            Tu non sei potuta

Egli non è potuto             Ella non è potuta


Masculine plural               Feminine plural

Noi non siamo potuti        Noi non siamo potute

Voi non siete potuti          Voi non siete potute

Essi non sono potuti        Esse non sono potute


I am sure you found this article very helpful; the difference between potere, sapere e riuscire a is often tricky for learners of Italian. However, learning how to use them with the right guidance will help you to grasp the concept much faster. I can help; if you have any questions please get in touch for a free consultation by clicking here  or send an email to

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